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An American in Beaune
By Michael Apstein
Dec 12, 2006
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It's dinnertime in Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy wine trade, and Ma Cuisine, an unpretentious bistro, is packed and bustling as usual.  When the door opens and an American with a charming boyish grin enters, the locals greet him with enthusiasm.  Alex Gambal works the room like a politician works a crowd.

After only a decade, Boston-based Alex Gambal has accomplished an extraordinary feat; he's been allowed to buy a vineyard.  To the uninitiated, the response might be, "what's the big deal, doesn't everyone in the wine business own vineyards?"  But in traditionally close-knit-even xenophobic-Burgundy, the local government can block the sale of any vineyard, so it is a "big deal" for any foreigner to be allowed into the "club."  How has Gambal done it?  He says that his 'secret weapon' was his kids. 

Serendipity and the Chance To Do Something Different

Gambal became interested in wine while working for his family's business, Colonial Parking, a real estate company that owns parking lots.  One of his first jobs happened to be across the street from Mayflower Wines and Spirits, a well-known Washington, D.C. wine shop.  He went there often to taste wines and, helped by his gregarious nature, made fast friends with the owner, Sidney Moore. 

Gambal's introduction to France was as serendipitous as the location of his early job.  He and his wife, Nancy, decided to take a vacation in France because neither of them had been there.  Moore introduced them to Becky Wasserman, an American wine broker in Beaune.  They tasted wines with Becky, and later talked while drinking Champagne and eating bread and Cîteaux, a local Burgundian cheese.   As is the custom in France, Becky often took on a stagiaire-literally, a trainee-usually a young, single man or woman who wanted to learn the trade.  Alex wondered whether she would break with tradition and hire him.  She agreed and Alex, Nancy, and two young children, Tyler, age 10, and Alexa, age 8, moved to Beaune.  The move to the capital of the Burgundy wine trade in May 1993, was not initially a move toward making wine, but, as he puts it, just a move "to do something different."

Making Connections

In no time, the kids were engaged in local school life and quite naturally, Alex became friendly with the parents of their children's friends, all of whom-this being Beaune-were in the wine trade. 

Gambal worked for Wasserman for a few years, making lots of other vital connections within the wine trade before it became time to return to the U.S. so that the children could prepare for a U.S. college education.  They moved to Boston because they loved the region-Gambal's family had a summerhouse on the Cape-and admired the schools.  But the wine bug had already bitten Gambal.  Just as they planned their return to the US, he started his wine business in Beaune, which led to some very long commutes. 

Gambal almost failed at the outset because of his inability to find a building to use as a winery.  Finally, through a friend in Beaune, he rented a large-25,000 square foot-but dilapidated building near the Beaune train station for $5,000 a year.  It had glitch-ridden electricity and no heat.  He froze, but the wines aged nicely. 

The Long Commute

For several years, Gambal made eight to ten trips annually from Needham, a suburb of Boston, to Beaune.  At first he didn't even make wine.  He bought young wines, which he aged, bottled and sold under his label, "Alex Gambal."  Then, in 1998, Gambal made his first wine by buying newly pressed juice.  Looking back, he describes himself as 'clueless.  I didn't know what I didn't know.'

Over the years, he was able to buy grapes, as opposed to juice, which he pressed himself giving him more control over the quality of the finished wine.  The connections Gambal made with the parents of his kids friends in the early 1990s helped him.  Many a farmer from whom Gambal wanted to buy grapes noted, "wait a minute; aren't you Tyler's father?"   All of a sudden the perfunctory Burgundian handshake become warmer and the deals concluded more easily.

In addition to commuting from Boston to Beaune-a 10-day trip every six weeks-he traveled extensively in the U.S. to build a strong domestic market to offset his poor sales in France.  Gambal didn't attribute weak sales in France to his being American, as "The French don't buy wines from anyone who's new.  Whether you're American or not makes no difference."  Building his business and sustaining his family became an impossible balance, which undoubtedly contributed to his divorce. 

A Return to Real Estate

In 2003, Gambal returned to his commercial roots in real estate when the woman who ran the Lycée Viticole, the school in Beaune where Gambal studied winemaking, told him that a small vineyard was for sale.  Although not categorized as one of the great vineyard sites in Burgundy (the wine from it had to be labeled simply Bourgogne without the name of a village or even a group of villages) the land still had the potential to make excellent wine from the traditional Burgundy grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Gambal bought the vineyard, and by doing so, will now be able to control quality of the wine even more than when merely buying grapes in the past. 

Another connection paid off almost simultaneously.  From the father of a friend of his daughter, he bought an old stone building-complete with a courtyard and French country charm-that he renovated for his winery in time for the 2004 harvest.  Since the renovation cost more than he anticipated (some things are universal) he planned to economize by omitting a large sign identifying the winery.  But friends prevailed, Gambal borrowed more money, and he now has a beautifully lettered, back-lit sign announcing 'Alex Gambal' affixed to the winery's exterior wall overlooking a major thoroughfare in Beaune.  He has arrived and, more importantly, he has been accepted.

An American Twist

In a uniquely American twist, Gambal plans to sell some of his wines in the U.S. by emphasizing the grape name (because consumers are familiar with that form of labeling) rather than by the French tradition of identifying the wine by reference to where the grapes were grown.  In another unusual marketing technique, he supplementing ordinary distribution channels by negotiating with stores in Boston to carry his entire line of wines. 

The American, English, and even the French wine press have already praised his wines, which obviously pleases Gambal.  His aim has always been to make the best wine possible, not be a large producer and make a fortune.  As he puts its, "If I wanted to make a lot of money, I would park cars."